UMass researcher receives $1.5 million grant to study sexual abuse prevention program

A UMass Lowell criminology researcher will share in a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study a new intervention program aimed at preventing sexual abuse.

Ryan Shields, assistant professor in UMass Lowell's School of Criminology and Justice Studies, will assess the effectiveness of "Help Wanted Prevention Intervention," the interactive online program he developed with researcher Elizabeth Letourneau of Johns Hopkins University in the hope of averting sexual abuse, which he described as a "significant public health problem."

An estimated 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys are victims of sexual abuse at some point in childhood, according to the CDC.

"The purpose of the website is to prevent child sexual abuse perpetration and to assist people who are looking for help to have healthy and happy lives," said Shields, who lives in Portsmouth, N.H.

The four-year grant will allow the team to examine the psychological and social stressors behind offending behaviors and to evaluate whether the "Help Wanted" website is an effective intervention program. The platform does not collect or save any identifying information about users who log on, Shields said.

The "Help Wanted" website underscores the critical need for prevention strategies before abuses are committed. Although the information on the website is tailored to adults, there is also a great need to offer interventions for younger people who need help, according to Shields.

"Approximately half - and recent evidence suggests up to 75 percent - of cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated by other children under the age of 18," he said, noting that all too often treatment is only offered after the abuse has occurred. He hopes "Help Wanted" is the first step to changing this approach.

We rarely do anything to prevent these events from happening in the first place, so the CDC grant to support prevention is a game-changer. I hope it opens the door to a larger national investment in prevention."

Ryan Shields, Assistant Professor, School of Criminology and Justice Studies, University of Massachusetts Lowell

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